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“A new sense of purpose”

After 18 days of protests, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocratic president lost his last grip on power on 11 February. The military took control of the country, promising to lead the transition to democracy. Yasser Arwan, an independent documentary photographer and artist, witnessed the uprising on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protests, and discussed the events in an interview with Hans Dembowski on 14 February.

Does Egypt need a police force at all? It seems the people were quite adept at managing traffic, patrolling neighbourhoods and even protecting the Egyptian Museum.
Yes, it was amazing. After the first few days of demonstrations, late on Friday 28 January, the entire police force suddenly disappeared. It must have been an order because it happened all at once all over Cairo. The idea was to create chaos and intimidate the people. But it did not work out that way. The neighbourhoods policed themselves, quite effectively and politely, once they got going. There were checkpoints, where young men wanted to see IDs and car registration papers. They also checked the trunks for weapons and other dangerous items. After a few days, things got worse, particularly as under-cover police officers and thugs managed to infiltrate or even take over the vigilant groups. But the capacity for self-government was absolutely astounding. In fact, I never felt safer or more protected because these were young men from my neighbourhood. Interestingly, to this very day, the police are reluctant to return to many neighbourhoods because they know that people will not forget what role they played and won’t tolerate their old tactics for one more minute.

There must be a strong sense of civil society for something like that to happen.
Yes, and Cairo’s spirit of community is really very strong. In this city of 20 million or so people, you normally don’t have to fear for your safety or even worry about theft. When I first came here in the 1980s from New York, I was astonished that violent crime in this city was plainly negligible. Things have deteriorated somewhat in the past 20 years; there is more poverty and desperation, and accordingly, there is theft too. Nonetheless, Cairo is still a safer place then any major city in the States or even in Europe.

Is that sense of community rooted in the country’s long history? People have been living in crowded settlements along the Nile for millennia. I imagine Egyptian society may be inherently more peaceful than other Arab cultures that were shaped by nomads.
I won’t speculate on this matter, but I do know that Iraq, where my parents came from, has a more violent history. And yes, in all of humankind’s written history, this country was inhabited by organised people. They grew food on farms along the river and managed the Nile waters, their history is one of cooperative action.

Does the protest movement trust the military’s promise of transition to free elections and full-blown democracy?
That is a matter of debate. There is an underlying sense of distrust and scepticism. The military did not play an altogether convincing role in the past days. When pro-Mubarak demonstrators – many of them under-cover police – attacked the protesters in Tahrir Square, they could have stopped the violence immediately. They did not, and as a result, 12 to 15 people were killed and more than 1000 wounded. The military, furthermore, was always part of the establishment throughout the Mubarak years, and Mubarak himself was from the air force.

So does it make sense to expect the military to lead democratic reforms at all?
Well, it does look like they may have learned a lesson. There is no going back to how things were run before the protests started on 25 January. Mass rallies went on for 18 days without a break. In Tahrir Square, the revolutionary movement managed to feed 10,000 to 20,000 people and even to provide sanitation. It became very, very obvious that mainstream Egyptian society was fed up with the regime and will not accept misery any more. People here aren’t greedy. But they want good healthcare and schools; they want to eat decently. Parents want their children to have better lives with more opportunities than they did. Thanks to the strong social cohesion in this country, it is unlikely that anyone would starve to death. But malnutrition is a very big issue. According to the data I trust, around 20 % of the people are malnourished. And the government-run education system is a mess, kids really aren’t being taught what they should be learning. I’m not sure that the military really wants change, but it probably does understand that things cannot stay the way they were.

The demonstrations proved to the entire world that Egyptians have had enough.
Yes, and the protest movement did not unfold its greatest potential yet. The working class had hardly begun to organise strikes. As soon as they started to lay down work, Mubarak resigned. I doubt the military wants to contemplate major, unified strikes. So far, this has been mostly a middle-class led revolution, but it has begun to resonate with the working class. I am sure that the generals who now control this country more openly and more firmly than before must be thinking very hard about how to hold on to power without setting in motion such demonstrations again. Whether they proceed in good faith or not is impossible to say right now.

History tells us that economic frustration often triggers revolution. While polities were liberated, however, the socio-economical situation often got worse, so disappointment lead to bloodshed. Does that worry the protest movement?
I can only speak about Tahrir Square, where I spent much of the past three weeks. The activists there certainly understood that it is much easier to mobilise against a brutal regime than to build a new system. Some do worry that the rug may yet be pulled from under their feet. On the other hand, the movement was strong enough to get rid of Mubarak. It proved to be a great and non-violent force which certainly has impressed everyone in this country, including the establishment.

Who is the leader of the protest movement? Wael Ghonim, the Google manager, who was detained for 11 days incommunicado?
Wael Ghonim has become its prominent face, though not the only face. He says himself that he does not have a coherent political vision. This movement does not have a leader, it is an expression of the free will of millions of people. But there are some who are capable of entering into negotiations now, and perhaps he will be one of them.

Do you worry about the Muslim Brotherhood stepping into a power vacuum?
No, absolutely not. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has never been a revolutionary force. And that is something it is being criticised for today. I spoke to one of their leaders, a very eloquent and distinguished man. They emphasise that none of their members will run for president. They have an ideology that I do not agree with, and many other people I know don’t agree with it either. But there is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood has legitimacy. In the past decades, its members provided social services, and they also bore the brunt of repression.

What do people in the pro-democracy movement think about western governments?
For Egypt, the USA matters most. And European leaders basically seem to follow Washington’s lead. In the past weeks, there was no clear political line. A commentator used the term “yo-yo diplomacy” for the statements that came out of Washington. And no matter what President Obama said after Mubarak finally resigned, Egypt’s people are angry. They know that the USA backed and funded the Mubarak system for
30 years. They were upset about the second Gulf war, which they consider a war of choice, and that has not been forgotten. Egyptians, furthermore, are fed up with Israelis’ safety always being the USA’s prime concern even when Israel tramples on human rights the way it did during the recent Gaza war; those crimes are documented beyond doubt in the UN’s Goldstone report.

So anger about Israel is a mobilising issue?
Yes, it is. Egyptians feel close to the Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza. There are family ties. But don’t get me wrong, the recent protests were neither about Israel nor the USA. No foreign flags were burned on Tahrir Square. This revolution is about Egypt’s domestic affairs. Nothing else mattered.

How did the protests get started –was it really the internet that made the difference?
Nobody knew this was going to unfold the way it did. I knew there were websites that proposed to protest on 25 January. But most of the opposition activists did not expect much to happen. The date was chosen well, however, since 26 January 1952 was a crucial date in Egypt’s first revolution, when the king and by implication the British colonial power too were kicked out. The date resonates with many people. And once the protests had started, there was a sense of determination that surprised everybody. A psychological barrier had been broken, and that transformed the young men and women who actively took part, often in leading roles. There is a new, absolutely undeniable and well-deserved sense of self-pride. One of the slogans held up by many during the protests read: Lift your head high, you’re Egyptian. This revolution is about dignity.

Does that affect the young generation?
Yes, certainly. Teenagers and young adults never knew any other president than Mubarak. Now they have forged a sense of pride for themselves by organising demonstrations and standing up to the worst forms of coercion. They persevered peacefully, even when violence on their part could have been excused, and they worked tirelessly to sustain the demonstrations for so long; they sang, they cleaned, and they retained their humour throughout. People are proud of the young generation today, while only a few weeks ago, the same young men and women tended to be regarded as lazy and useless. One reason was that most couldn’t find jobs and didn’t have the incomes they needed to start families. They all certainly share a new sense of purpose now.